Google+ A Tangled Rope: 10/01/2008 - 11/01/2008

Friday, October 24, 2008


There will be no new posts here until 03/11/08.

From The Archive: Turn Your Computer Off, Now

From The Archive is a special Friday feature. It features posts from my earlier (now-deleted) blog: Stuff & Nonsense and a few items from previous versions of A Tangled Rope that I feel deserve reprinting here, mainly as a way of archiving them. The dates are only approximate, I’m afraid, and there is a possibility that some links may no longer work (although, I will try to remember to test the links before republishing the piece).

Turn Your Computer Off, Now - 09/08/05

Here's an excellent, thoughtful article in the Grauniad, by Marina Warner about why books are better than computers. It is something that should be so obvious as to not really need mentioning.

I know I - for example, spend far too much time reading stuff, most trivial stuff like blogs - the overwhelming majority of which - if not all - are like this one- a complete waste of time for both their writers and their readers.

Perhaps - it increasingly seems to me - the book is the pinnacle, at least as far as fiction is concerned.

More and more I seem films as a very poor substitute indeed for books. There is nothing so depressing - as in the recent War of the Worlds - as hearing of yet another film adaptation of a favourite , or even just well-regarded, book.

I have given up on the TV adaptations of 'great' books too. They miss so much out of what makes a great book a great book.

The irony of reading this article on the web, on a computer is - of course - not lost on me. I used to like - still prefer - the physical fact of a newspaper. Not the tabloid comics, of course, but a real newspaper.

However, there is - these days - just so much wasted paper in them. So much lifestyle junk, so many Polly Fillers and incestuous media-land gossip, trivia and oneup(wo)manship. It seems the larger, the more supplements, a newspaper gets the less there is in it I want to read. Simple economics has necessitated my move from print media to reading newspapers and magazines (where possible) on the web.

But why do I need all this information I so assiduously gather? Am I like one of those big-gobbed whales that hoover up the plankton as they unconsciously swim through it?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Joy of Sex

It was a spring day, but rainy and cold. As we dressed again, awkward in her small car, she spoke of her husband. How he had never learnt how to do any of those special things I had so eagerly done for her, despite all his army years travelling around the world, acquiring tattoos and getting drunk in foreign brothels.

She said that, if she had even half the money he had spent in the mouths of cheap foreign whores, we could have spent our meagre lunch hour fucking in the comfort of a more expensive car. 

Take Away

I remember her name, and how she laughed easily, chatting like the rice frying in the back kitchen. I was not used to it - the attention, I mean. She looked back, over her shoulder, she was nervous too. Her father, she explained, raising her eyes towards the ceiling fan.

I nodded, I understood, or at least, I thought so. But maybe that was only superficially, sudden media images of inscrutable Asians and family bonds much tighter than blood throbbing in veins or dripping on floors.

Her sleek careful fingers touched mine as she gave my change. Such dark eyes. She smiled and then we both knew.

She took one step back, looked down, away, as the back door opened and her father thrust the hot brown paper bag, neatly folded, without a glance at his daughter, he smiled, briefly, at me.

I smiled back, hoping he would not notice my real desire, not notice whom I really wanted to take away. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


It has been a long time since I thought about it. Time can pass by so easily; hardly noticed, hardly recognised for what it is.

What is a second? What is a minute? Mere paltry things, which do not often go remarked upon. But, minutes make hours and hours make days which make weeks, months and years.

Years slip by so easily. You would not think they could, but they do. Ask yourself this: What has happened to the last ten years of your life; has it all gone by while you were not looking? Have things changed greatly in those intervening years, or is everything much the same as it always was?

If it has changed a great deal, do you feel as though it was through any action on your part, or did it all just happen around you?

It always seems as though things happen to us, things beyond our control. No life is left untouched by the world around it. Interaction is necessary, if not essential.

We cannot walk through the world without disturbing it in some way, leaving footprints. It touches us and we ought to reach out to touch it too. There is no point in hiding away from it. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Review: In Defence of History – Richard J. Evans

[Non-fiction – History 1997]

The dreary trite pseudo-‘insights’ of post-modernism reappear again; this time with their feeble attempts to turn history into just another ‘text’. However, as Evans so splendidly puts it in this, his robust defence of history:

Auschwitz was not a discourse. It trivializes mass murder to see it as a text. The gas chambers were not a piece of rhetoric. Auschwitz was indeed inherently a tragedy and connate be seen as either a comedy or a farce. And if this is true of Auschwitz, then it must be true at least to some degree of other past happenings, events, institutions, people as well.

History as Evans argues has a long established methodology, which is itself constantly under scrutiny - as this book itself demonstrates by its own existence and its long line of antecedents - for establishing the veracity of historical events and the value of historian’s attempts at explaining the relationship between those events.

As with all other areas where postmodernism has tried to elbow itself into, there is little – if anything – that postmodernism itself can add to history, or history’s self-examination that is not trite, superficial or painstakingly obvious before the weight of postmodernism’s own contradictions smother it’s pseudo-profundities and irrelevances.

Postmodernism et al, of course, grew out of the failure and collapse of Marxism and all the theories and suppositions which had grown from it. Marx’s own idea that history had a purpose (or – at least – discoverable laws) and direction was – of course – destroyed by Popper (among others), and – most tellingly – by the course of history itself.

History does not make the claims that postmodernists accuse it of – of being the absolute truth about past events – and so their destruction of this strawman is not the masterstroke they seem to believe. Historians, and those of us who read their work, know that there is always more to the story than we get from any history book. History is not a science in the strong sense of that word, but it does have a rigorous methodology, enough to make both historians and their readers feel confident that they do get as close to truth as they can within the limitations of history itself. For example, historians are very aware that historical documents are written by fallible human beings, often for a variety of reasons conscious or unconscious and take into account many other factors like the context of the document, the nature of the document and so on. So the postmodernist claim that a document, or ‘text’ as they like to call it, can no longer be regarded as having one fixed meaning which is bestowed upon it by its author at the time of writing. As Evans says, though ‘it is doubtful whether anyone, in fact, has ever believed that meaning can be fixed in this way.’ He also demonstrates the falsehood of po-mo’s claim about the arbitrariness of language, demonstrating that language evolves through contact and interaction with reality, rather than just being about itself. In fact, Evens states ‘…the postmodernist concentration on words diverts attention away from real suffering and oppression and towards the kinds of secondary intellectual issues that matter in the physically comfortable world of academia.’

Of course, a great deal of po-mo – pace Foucault – is rather simplistically obsessed with what they like to see as power relationships between various actors within societies, but, Evans points out, this could be more a case of the po-mo academics themselves trying to claw back some power and influence for themselves. Hence, with postmodernism’s disdain for truth and reality:

The past no longer has the power to confine the researcher within the bounds of facts. Historians and critics are now omnipotent. To underline this, the postmodernists have developed a new level of specialized language and jargon, borrowed largely from literary theory, which has rendered their work opaque to anyone except other postmodernists. The enterprise thus seems not only self-regarding but, ironically in view of its criticism of hierarchy and prioritization, elitist as well. Its narcissism and elitism can both be seen as compensatory mechanisms for the loss of real power, income and status suffered by its academic practitioners over the past ten to fifteen years.

Constantly, throughout this book Evans – like so many other critics of postmodernism in many other areas beyond history – demonstrates that po-mo must always fail because of its inherent contradictions. For example, if all theories are equally valid, then why give any special credence to po-mo, rather than more realist theories? If all knowledge is relative, then why bother believing in po-mo and its practitioners? Why ‘privilege’ postmodernists over anyone else?

Evans, does in the end allow po-mo some limited room in the practice of historical scholarship, but only in terms of the way it makes historians more aware of the limitations of their approach and areas of study, but that is what a good historian should do anyway, it seems.

Anyway, postmodernism is well on the wane now, in areas beyond history. So soon, books like this will become objects of historical curiosity only, like books on or about so many of the ideologies that came promising so much and – in the end – delivered little or nothing of any lasting worth. Just like so many theories, ideologies and other ‘grand narrative’, po-mo became quasi-religious and ended up talking only to itself about itself within constraints that it engendered itself which kept out so much of the awkward reality that cannot be held within those constraints without the whole edifice crumbling to dust.

In Defence of History is a very good, readable, book that ought to be read by more than just historians and those with an interest in how history comes about. It is a strong defence of academic rigour and a warning that, without that rigour -which postmodernism tried so hard to undermine - if the academic, or indeed any, mind is left too open, then anything could crawl in.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Monday Poem: Becalmed

[Every Monday (until I run out of them), I’m posting a poem of mine that has fallen out from the submission process for some reason. In most cases, it will be one where I’ve received no response to my submission for at well over a year or more. Maybe the magazine I submitted them to has folded, the submission was lost in the post, or whatever. So, these poems can be seen as lost, orphans, of uncertain status, or something like that.]

These poems are also posted to ABCTales.


This morning all my thoughts are gone.
Gone to wherever thoughts go
when they are lost in their own seas.

No longer tossed by vindictive waves
that churn and boil in useless fury.
But becalmed on seas stretched taut
like glassy silken sheets spread
from horizon to distant low horizon.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A British National Day

If you have been stultified by the abject tedium of the recent debate about the nature of Britishness then you will, no doubt have heard all you want to hear about the need for a 'National Day'. However, if it does mean a chance for another day off work where we can all join together in one long national traffic jam along the routes to all our out-of-town-shopping-centres, then maybe, just maybe, there is some merit to the idea. After all, we could all do with another day off, couldn't we?

The question therefore arises as to which day that day off should be. 'Why not today?' is as good an answer as any. For today is - as you well know - the anniversary of that significant day in British history when Sir Hedgerow Sausageincline first offered a spatula to Queen Elizabeth I as she waited for news of the Spanish Amanda..

The Spanish Amanda - as every schoolchild knows - had launched a thousand ships; by head-butting them down the slipway, in an act of revenge against England for the day King Harold the Confessor had poked her in the eye with an arrowroot biscuit at the battle of Birmingham New Street. So, consequently Queen Elizabeth I needed the spatula to use as a cricket bat in her infamous game of ten-pin bowling (the rules of this game have long since changed, of course) against W.C. Graciefields, who - as everyone knows - played naked except for a muddy cape, and his team of Plymouth whores.

The rest of the story is etched on the national consciousness. The two armies the British 'Mods' or Cavaliers against the Spanish 'Rockers', or Puritans stood face to face on the Brighton beach as the traditional British Bank Holiday rain lashed down upon them. Not waiting for her army, Queen Elizabeth strode up to Spanish Amanda as soon as she stepped on the beach.

Crying 'we will fight them on the beaches!' Elizabeth slapped Amanda hard around the head with her spatula, severely lacerating Amanda's paella, before Amanda could even begin to set up her deckchair.

Disentangling herself from her deckchair the humbled, and slightly-bruised, Amanda turned and ran across the beach, followed by her shame-faced army of Rockers. To the loud jeers of the British Mods, the Rockers headed back to sea in their pedalos, and peddled off towards the horizon, never daring to return to these noble shores again.

Although, there are many proudly patriotic British people who make it their sacred duty to commemorate this day by going to Spain each summer to spend a whole fortnight throwing up over as much of it as they can, this day is not really marked on the British calendar or celebrated in the way it should be.

Maybe we should change that.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Airstrip One


Orwell’s 1984 is one of my all-time favourite books, but that doesn’t mean I want to live in it.

It was meant – as they say – to be a warning, not a blueprint. And yet we have the Newspeak of political correctness, the Thoughtcrime of various recent pieces of legislation that outlaw any unauthorised thoughts about religions, terrorism and anything else the government decides you should not think about, Junior Spies, the prolefeed of popular culture, and – of course – the CCTV telescreens. Now from the Ministry of Love we have this.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Words do not like to be caught. Poised, frozen on the sheer plain whiteness of the page.

Words, there are a lot of them about. You will often hear them muttering together in the shadows, plotting, scheming.

Words will take over your mind, fill it with promises, tell you stories, share your secrets. They know what you're thinking. They will sing all your songs. They will fill your memory with stories.

Words will take you by the hand and lead you up the garden path. They will promise you everything.

Words will tell you lies.

Words will leave you empty and silent whenever you need them most.

Words will say the wrong thing for you.

Words will say what you did not mean at all.

Words will list all your mistakes.

Words will remember all your lies and evasions.

Words will hold you in the darkness and words will help you through the night.

Words will open the universe to you.

Words will tell you everything.

Words will hide away inside all your books, waiting just for you.

Words will keep the world just out of your reach, standing between you and what you can touch.

Words will be there at the beginning, and there right at the end.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Like Dust

Walking down that road, we will see what we can find when suddenly turning a corner to discover a new day before us. Here we are then, doing the same thing we do every morning and wondering how it can be made different, how can something new grow from these old stories?

They are old tales, old when this world was young. People like us have lived lives like this from before history began. We live, we grow old and we die, almost forgotten, and then are forgotten as memories die after us.

Our moment is here, and then it is gone like a cloud passing before the sun, like a leaf floating down the stream, like something brittle crushed in the palm of the hand and then left to scatter like dust on the breeze. 

Monday, October 13, 2008

Monday Poem: Discarded

[Every Monday (until I run out of them), I’m posting a poem of mine that has fallen out from the submission process for some reason. In most cases, it will be one where I’ve received no response to my submission for at well over a year or more. Maybe the magazine I submitted them to has folded, the submission was lost in the post, or whatever. So, these poems can be seen as lost, orphans, of uncertain status, or something like that.]

These poems are also posted to ABCTales.


To search for what is found, there by the edge
of roads and pathways. Places where time is still
against the movement taking all the world
to somewhere else, just the same as they left
behind. To find there what is left and lost,
discarded and forgotten. Now ignored
by those who pass by, only unaware
of what is there – beyond their easy reach.

A history waiting to be found again.
A chance to connect, break the hold of time
that keeps us here, apart from those past worlds
we only reach through fragments left behind.
All that remains are fragments, nothing more.
and all we know and all we are and were
is all we leave behind too, nothing more.

Friday, October 10, 2008

From The Archive: Elitist, My Arse

From The Archive is a special Friday feature. It features posts from my earlier (now-deleted) blog: Stuff & Nonsense and a few items from previous versions of A Tangled Rope that I feel deserve reprinting here, mainly as a way of archiving them. The dates are only approximate, I’m afraid, and there is a possibility that some links may no longer work (although, I will try to remember to test the links before republishing the piece).

Elitist, My Arse - Date: 23/08/2005

I've recently finished reading Ian Hamilton's Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth Century Poets (an excellent book, and - I would think - a very good introduction to the subject for the neophyte) in one of the essays (I Forget which, but I think it was on one of the beats, or post-beats) he says 'we must stop flattering the young.'

Yes, I do think that it is time we stepped away from the blind worship that has resulted in the adultescent, binge drinking and a high proportion of the stuff that blights our modern world. So much of it seems to involve pandering to the young and aping the (inevitable) simplicities of their wordview.

Then there is this in the Grauniad about The music that dare not speak its name. and how

the perceived classical music market (grey, old) and the Observer's (and Guardian's) target readership - the assumption being that anyone aged 25 to 45 regards classical music as an entirely closed book.

I'm 46 (a month or so ago), so - apparently - I now fall outside that demographic, but I have been 'into' classical for a long, long time.

The author Meurig Bowen states that 'I certainly don't regard popular music as junk food', but it is slowly - and somewhat reluctantly - what I'm beginning to believe, and not just pop music, but the entirety of popular culture these days. There was a time - the late 60s/early 70s - when it seemed as though popular culture could offer something beyond mere entertainment, but those days are long gone now.

One of my strongest memories of my first hesitant steps into the strangely beguiling world of classical music is of one day in a record shop (back when there were record shops, and when those shops sold classical recordings). I remember listening to two almost archetypal Black Country working men (both in flat caps, but sans whippets) vigorously and knowledgeably discussing the relative merits of the available versions of a Brahms symphony. So… elitist, my arse.

What those two blokes knew, and what we seem to have forgotten of late, is that there is stuff out there that does have a greater value than other stuff. That it is not all relative, and that most insidiously anti-human, anti-freedom, anti-rational, anti-intelligence, almost fascistic notion - that it is all a matter of taste and nothing more is a complete load of relativistic bollocks.

There used to be evening classes, night school, worker's colleges and so on. There used to be a BBC that took seriously the idea that it was there to educate, entertain and inform and was not frightened of showing the difficult stuff to the masses.

But, nowadays, as Bowen says, if chips and Turkey Twizzlers are all that's served up, that's the taste and preference created. And it is us that are the poorer for it. We have thrown away so much, wasted so much time, chasing after an illusion of egalitarianism that has - instead of embiggening us all - has taken away so much possibility, leaving us with so much unfulfilled human potential wasting away to nothing.

Thursday, October 09, 2008


The rain fell, seemingly endlessly. The mornings were dark and cold. I could hear the wind rattling in the bare trees outside.

There was not much to say to each other. We had run out of things to say to each other some time before. We sat on opposite sides of the fire, both watching the flickering flames as though they could offer portents or explanations.

I felt the urge to go over to her and hold her. I wanted to talk of the times we lay naked in front of that fire. The way the flames used to turn her skin a deep orange and the sparks glittered in her eyes.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008


There is a delicate, tentative, feeling in the air, as though we are waiting for something, some storm, or some revelation that will change the shape of our world for a while. The heavy storm clouds closing in like dark battleships, to close down the sky, the wind searching every hiding place, every cranny and corner. It hunts us and it will find us, here where we wait for our futures to untangle and fall to the rain-soaked ground.

The aftermath will be cold and dark, wandering in a daze, looking for those fragments of our previous life we can recognise and save, but all is smashed, ripped and broken. We’ll have no world left, maybe not even a foundation to rebuild upon.

The horizon seems close enough to touch, as though you could reach out and grasp it, mould it into some new beginning away from these wrecks and ruins. All it would take would be one small step and then another for that horizon to come even closer and for all this to fall behind. 

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Review: The People’s Act Of Love by James Meek

[Fiction - 2005]

The Siberian wastes of Russia where this novel is set are cold, bleak wastelands where people freeze to death all the time. That is just how this novel left me… freezing cold.

A few pages in and I was wondering why anyone should feel the need to rewrite Doctor Zhivago.

At times it feels like someone took all the Russian greats of the novel: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pasternak, etc whizzed them up in a blender and poured away the best parts, then watered what remained down to leave this rather thin bland insipid juice.

The vast long stretches of prose like Samarin’s tale of his escape from the prison, and the story of the Czech soldiers’ war are as bleak and featureless as the Siberian wastes. Oh, it looks pretty enough, but once you are out trudging wearily through these wastelands of backstory, death, at least of the characters, does come as a blessed relief. Someone seems to freeze to death every few pages. It is often hard to know, or care, who it is. The number of people freezing to death seems to reach absurd proportions in the Czech soldiers’ tale, by the way, with someone icing up seemingly every other paragraph.

There is interwoven with all this snow a tale of a bizarre religious sect who – for deluded reasons of their own – castrate themselves in order to get closer to god. This could have been interesting as these self-castrated religious folk demonstrate the essential insanity of religion, the religious denial of the connection between the human and the rest of nature, and that religion destroys some essential human part of us.

The main aspect of the novel, indeed ‘The People’s Act of Love’ is a debate between and through some of the characters about whether cannibalism out ion the frozen wastelands is ever justifiable. It is no doubt some overly wrought metaphor for the revolution – i.e. is it ever right to kill and eat another human being to survive, is it right for people to die to help bring about the people’s paradise on Earth? But all of this is lost in the blizzard of tedium.

The characters themselves seem frozen to the page, refusing to come alive. It is one of those novels where, when a character reappears in the narrative, you have trouble remembering who it is and whether they are old or new characters.

If you want to see the novelist as playing some deep game of chess against the fates with his characters as the chess pieces, then this novel reads like someone aimless doodling about with a set of chess pieces on some long slow Sunday afternoon while waiting for something to happen.

If it wasn’t for the sake of this review I would have given up on it and left the book unfinished – something rare for me. I don’t like to give bad reviews, knowing how hard writing a book can be, but I do genuinely struggle to find anything good to say about this book at all, and am genuinely mystified as to why it seems to have had generally favourable reviews elsewhere.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Monday Poem: Dropped

[Every Monday (until I run out of them), I’m posting a poem of mine that has fallen out from the submission process for some reason. In most cases, it will be one where I’ve received no response to my submission for at well over a year or more. Maybe the magazine I submitted them to has folded, the submission was lost in the post, or whatever. So, these poems can be seen as lost, orphans, of uncertain status, or something like that.]

These poems are also posted to ABCTales.


A day gone is a day lost.
Lost and gone forever.

We cannot walk back
to that day, dropped
only a short week ago.

    Pick it up,
    dust it off,

and smile at our good fortune
as we pocket it, ready
for some more needful time.

Friday, October 03, 2008

From The Archive: So, This is Real Life

From The Archive is a special Friday feature. It features posts from my earlier (now-deleted) blog: Stuff & Nonsense and a few items from previous versions of A Tangled Rope that I feel deserve reprinting here, mainly as a way of archiving them. The dates are only approximate, I’m afraid, and there is a possibility that some links may no longer work (although, I will try to remember to test the links before republishing the piece).

So, This is Real Life - 02/08/2005

Movies Just Don't Matter in the LA Times (Link through Arts Journal).

It is something I first thought about ages ago now. The way that 'celebrity' lives have taken over the entertainment landscape and become the dominant form of entertainment today, eclipsing film, TV entertainment programmes, pop music and… well, just about everything.

So much so, that even the 'arts' are defined in terms of 'celebrity' - think Tracey Emin, JK Rowling, Franz Ferdinand - well, anyone on the culture pages of the posh papers, really, and how - almost invariably - they are presented in a similar way to any other reality TV 'star', latest pop sensation, soap opera actor and so on.

It seems as though, if you are willing to play the 'celebrity' game - enter into this symbiotic relationship with the media where each of you feeds off the other - then you must accept that your life will become a form of soap-opera played out in the pages and on the screens of media land. It ceases to become a 'real' life, and more a sequence of images and scenes and fantasies played out in front of an audience. Forget street theatre, performance art and all those other shallow simulacrums - the 'celebrity life' is now the popular culture art-form of the age. As the LA Times article says:

Watching a movie used to tickle viewers to want to know more about its stars. Today, knowing about the stars is an end in itself.

I suppose the irony of it all, and what the article misses, is that these so-called real celebrity lives are as much a work of fiction as the latest Hollywood blockbuster. There are created through PR with the witting (more often than acknowledged), or unwitting, connivance of the media, in the creation of the narrative of the 'life'.

I suppose this also explains the rise of 'reality' TV (In itself, as much of a fiction as any other media construction). Where the viewers see the story unfold right in front of their eyes. It even gives the illusion that the viewers (voyeurs) have some influence in the unfolding of the narrative, and why its 'stars' later are often promoted into 'celebrities' themselves.

Of course, if you read J.G. Ballard (and if not, why not?), none of this will come as much of a surprise to you.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Story Is Waiting

Here, the place.

Now, the time.

You, the person who will become the main focus, almost the hero of the tale. It is strange to talk of heroes in this day and age, outside of tabloid land - that place where heroes – and, of course, villains - are created on an almost daily basis.

But, look over there. There is a story waiting to happen, waiting to begin. All it needs is you. It is waiting for you to go over to it. It needs you. And you, what are you without a story? You are just a mere character that has no shape and no form without the story to sculpt you.

We all need our stories to shape us, to define us, to create us. Without our stories to support us, we are nothing, no-one and nowhere.

Without us our stories will die. They need us. A story without its central character is no story at all, and it knows it. It is merely description, and empty at its heart. It needs its character and that character needs its story.

All our lives are narratives, with a beginning, a middle, and then an ending. A story that can be told, a story that can be read. A story that can live on, but only if there are other people who will make room for it in their own stories. 

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Review: The Social Animal - W.G. Runciman

[Non-fiction – Sociology 1998]

Sociology has not yet recovered from the lambasting it received during the late 70s and the 80s when it became obvious that most of its theoretical underpinnings, especially those most influenced by Marxist theory, were at odds with the very natures of the societies sociology itself exists to study. For a long time, until Media Studies came along to take the dubious honour from it Sociology was the butt of that student joke where the graffiti above the toilet roll dispenser states ‘Sociology Degrees Please take One’.

The sociologist soon became a stereotypical character, an out-of-touch academic misunderstanding all that they see and seeing everything as class conflict, exploitation and other such Marxist, post-Marxist or pseudo-Marxist inspired clichés. This – in a way – is a shame as the study of people and their relationships with the rest of society from small groups right up to the nation state and beyond is something well worth studying. As would – incidentally – a proper and rigorous study of the Media and its relationship to society, rather than the simplistic theory-driven pseudo-study that is often passed off as Media Studies in contemporary academia. Runciman himself is very aware of this, stating:

Sociology may be easy to do badly (what isn’t?). But the lesson of its history to date is how hard it is to do well. To sociologists, this should be a challenge rather than a deterrent. But to their readers, it should be a reason to be at the same time sceptical about sociology’s pretensions, charitable about its limitations and discriminating about its achievements.

As Runciman says, Marx was wrong about the inevitability of proletarian revolution in capitalist societies, wrong about the inevitability of revolution in industrial rather than agricultural societies and wrong about the socialist utopias bringing about an end to class conflict. Runciman goes on to state that the only lasting legacy of Marx is the prominence given to ‘class-conflict’ in post-Marxist sociology. But whether that is a benefit or not is very debatable, especially to us non-sociologists.

Runciman goes on to discuss those other ‘greats’ of sociology Weber and Durkheim, finding their concepts of man and society equally as flawed as the Marxist worldview. Runciman argues that neither Weber’s view of history as ‘a process of inexorable ‘rationalisation’ originating in the societies of early modern Europe’, nor Durkeim’s notion that ‘human social behaviour is explicable entirely by the social environment’ as satisfactory.

Neither is he convinced by the followers of Hobbes and Rousseau who argue, in the case of the former that mankind is ‘naturally’ aggressive, warlike and in constant conflict, and in the later that mankind is ‘naturally’ a ‘noble savage’ living in harmony with each other and nature. Runciman instead argues that it is more a case of neither and both, that all societies combine both aggression and co-operation, and so on, as necessary. This is again, another example of where some sociologists have become caricatures of themselves by slavishly following such over-simplifications to the point of absurdity. Runciman is therefore correct to call for the discipline to move beyond such narrow ways of thinking.

However, Ruciman’s neo-evolutionary theory is very distinct from the old and discredited notions of the so-called ‘social-Darwinists’. They put the varying successes of different societies down to genetic differences between the ‘races’, which is patently absurd as the genetic differences that there are between the different so-called ‘races’ are so minor and insignificant that they cannot be seriously considered as an explanation for the relative qualities of societies at all.

Runciman’s argument, therefore, is that societies, just like living creatures must adapt to their environment and to changing circumstances, otherwise they will become extinct. There are, of course, several examples which could support this thesis, such as: the fall of the USSR and Eastern block countries when it became obvious they could no longer continue, the gradual change of China away from communism, the stagnation of North Korea, the civilisation of Easter Island collapsing and leaving behind those enigmatic statues, the Vikings failing to cope with the change of climate in Greenland, the fall of the Roman Empire and many more.

This neo-evolutionary approach to human societies is a very intriguing idea, especially now that Marxism et al are such spent forces, and the - in general – left-wing (for want of a better description) notions that have underpinned so much of sociological theory have proved - at best – ineffectual, and often counterproductive, if not downright dangerous. Therefore it is now necessary that we look for some better way of understanding societies. It is just a pity that this book only scratches the surface of the idea, serving more as an introduction to the notion of neo-evolutionary social theory rather than being more of an in-depth study of societies through that lens. Nevertheless, The Social Animal is still a very interesting and intriguing read for those interested in the nature of human societies.